Monday, October 22, 2007

One Laptop Per Child: Will It Fly?

Being poor and isolated is rotten. A recent book by Paul Collier entitled The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It deals with the poorest one-sixth of the world's population of six billion. According to reviews, Collier identifies four main reasons that these poorest of the poor are where they are. Internal and regional conflicts (1) are sometimes worsened by concentrations of natural resources (2) such as gold and oil that distort economies, especially when (3) you live in a country next to one where similar problems are going on, and (4) your government is corrupted by sweetheart deals with everybody from Western multinational companies all the way down to international crooks. Although I haven't read the book, the problem of a country's poor children not having laptops apparently did not make Collier's list of the top four issues. Nevertheless, an organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts is busily working on solving that problem.

The outfit called "One Laptop Per Child" aims to put specially-designed, inexpensive laptop computers into the hands of millions of children in the poorest countries in the next few years. The machine itself will be powered by solar cells, hand crank, or batteries, and uses special hardware and software to reduce its operating power consumption to less than a watt under some conditions, which is about a tenth or less of what an ordinary laptop uses. Recent reports indicate that the designers have not yet reached their target cost of $100 per unit, but present estimates are below $200 and the hope is the cost will fall as manufacturing climbs the learning curve.

The project's founder is Nicholas Negroponte, who has held various positions at MIT and related organizations for many years. Negroponte, who also founded MIT's Media Lab, is a member of what one might term the MIT computer brain trust, a group of individuals including Seymour Papert and Marvin Minsky who have shaped the direction of a great deal of computer and artificial intelligence research and publicity.

Clearly, the hearts of Negroponte and company appear to be in the right place. Children don't live by bread alone, and it is a noble goal to bring the benefits of computer technology to people who are impoverished in other ways as well. The plan is to sell the laptops only to governments, which would presumably distribute the units to their citizens either free or at a heavily subsidized low cost. Although the XO-1, as it's called, will not be available for consumer purchases in general, the Wikipedia article on it reports that this Christmas, you will be able to "get one and give one": you can buy one for yourself and at the same time, donate one to a poor child somewhere.

There is a movement in engineering ethics to encourage the study of what are called "moral exemplars": people or organizations who do the right thing in engineering, furnishing good examples to the rest of us. I will say that the XO-1 project certainly has the potential to be a moral exemplar, but so far the jury is out. The organizers are still awaiting large-scale production and distribution, and until they have large numbers of units out in the field and do some studies to see how they are used, we will simply have to wait and see how the project turns out.

A few critics have pointed out that the venture is very "top-down," in the sense that a bunch of experts in Cambridge got together and designed a laptop that they thought would be good for third-world children to use. It has certainly gained Negroponte a lot of favorable media attention. For example, he introduced a kind of pre-prototype at a UN-sponsored meeting in Tunisia in 2005, sharing the platform with then-UN secretary general Kofi Annan. And judging by the specialized hardware and software, the MIT types have had a field day trying out some of their pet ideas in this thing, using it as kind of a test bed for a lot of what-if notions.

But whether the unit really meets a genuine need or truly improves the lives of children around the world remains to be seen. One concern is the fact that all the software on the unit is open-source. This is a nice gesture toward an ideal world that some people would like to live in, where all software would be open-source, but it ignores the reality that most software used by most computers today is proprietary. And if you can't run any proprietary software on these XO-1s (although users might install it after purchase, since the operating system is Linux), there is a real danger that the things may turn into just expensive toys.

Years ago, I experienced what happens when a new piece of computer hardware is launched without any software available for it. One of the leading lights in the Massachusetts computing world back then was the Digital Equipment Corporation, or DEC. I spent a good chunk of my first research dollars as a professor on a DEC computer highly recommended by a colleague who, I found later, used to work for DEC. It was a good machine hardware-wise, but as the months dragged on and nobody besides DEC developed any software for it, I found that I'd bought an expensive boat-anchor, and ended up having to buy a PC.

I hope such a fate does not await the XO-1, but surely the developers have thought of this problem in advance. Most of the world's effective software has been developed under the aegis of the free-enterprise system where people had to pay something for it. Maybe the children will surprise us and develop software on their own—the system is said to allow for this. I wish the XO-1 the best, but a community that benefits from computers is more than just the sum of software, hardware, training, and distribution. Time will tell, as it usually does.

Sources: The official One Laptop Per Child website (in English) is at The Wikipedia article about it is at I learned about the project in an article by Kirk Ladendorf in the Oct. 22 issue of the Austin American-Statesman. Collier's book was reviewed in the November 2007 issue of First Things.


  1. I read a book last year (Freakanomics I belive) in which some study showed that kids that read books did better in school than those that did not. One state somewhere on the east coast decided that they would use tax money to buy books and give them to the kids.

    Needless to say it was a total flop. Turns out they didn't realize that parents that read books, had kids that read books.

    I think this is the same sort of limited thinking. If nothing else, give them some books to start with and see how it goes.

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